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Irvin Ehrenpreis (1920–1985)

Irvin Ehrenpreis, a frequent contributor to The New York Review, died in Germany on the third of July, after a fall from which he did not regain consciousness. He was sixty-five years old, in excellent health and vigor, and in the midst of numerous scholarly and journalistic projects.

Both here and overseas he was thought to be one of the most distinguished scholars in the history of the study of eighteenth-century literature. The high quality of his historical and critical work has been widely and officially recognized. In 1984 he was awarded for his great three-volume work on Swift not only the Gottschalk prize for the best work of scholarship in the field of eighteenth-century studies, but also the Christian Gauss Prize of Phi Beta Kappa, for the best work of literary scholarship of any period. In France he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Besançon. In Germany, at the University of Münster, where he had been teaching, he had just been honored on his sixty-fifth birthday. In Britain he was a Research Fellow at All Souls College, and a visiting fellow at Merton College. On the day he died, the announcement was made of his election to the British Academy. In this country he held numerous honors and grants and was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

He rose to this eminence from humble beginnings. After graduating from the City College of New York at the age of eighteen, and paying his way by teaching school and other jobs, he earned a Ph.D. degree from Teachers College, Columbia University, at age twenty-four. He taught for many years at Indiana University, and then for twenty years until his death, at the University of Virginia, where he worked with energy and resolve to help bring the English department to national prominence.

His interests were varied and his activities incessant. He was an expert on modern American poetry and fiction. He delighted in writing reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and later The New York Review of Books, because these tasks provided him with occasions to take up new subjects. At his death, in addition to working on a study of Alexander Pope, he was diligently perfecting his Greek and German, as well as writing a review of books on Emily Dickinson for this paper. Among the fifteen books which he wrote or edited is one on Wallace Stevens, and one on literary theory. His masterwork was the huge, three-volume biography, Swift: The Man, his Works, and the Age, which, in the opinion of most critics, will stand without rival or peer for a very long time.

Irvin Ehrenpreis was a man of Swiftian irony and lightning wit. Slight of build, animated in gesture and expression, he was superb in conversation. He loved a scandal, and would decorate his stories with melodramatic prefaces, and punctuate them with gleeful laughs. He took care that very little of this impishness carried over into his reviewing, and none into his historical work. His tone and spirit were always judicious and fair. His friends and colleagues considered him a wise man.

Those who entered into scholarly debate with Ehrenpreis learned to fear his learning and acumen, and his impatience with pretension and stupidity. Yet he was enormously patient with his students whether gifted or dull. He never neglected the slightest pedagogical duty to pursue his own work, and he conducted even his graduate seminars partly as composition courses, to the great appreciation of those he taught. He attracted students of all levels of ability, and knew how to address his teaching to each. Some of his many doctoral students have already become distinguished scholars. In his teaching, as in his writing, he set for himself the most rigorous and exalted ideals.

—E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

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